BeeLine to the Future: The Future of Death

Robert Bee
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I’ve been thinking about the future and the singularity a lot lately. One issue that Kurzweil and other singularity intellectuals focus on is death. In The Futurist magazine Thomas Fey has published an article “When Death Becomes Optional: Rethinking the inevitable.”

“The year is 2032. You have just celebrated your 80th birthday and you have some tough decisions ahead. You can either keep repairing your current body or move into a new one.
The growing of “blank” bodies has become all the rage, and by using your own genetic material, body farmers can even recreate your own face at age 20.

In just 20 years, this is an industry that has moved from the equivalent of Frankenstein’s laboratory to the new celebrity craze, with controversy following it every step of the way.
The combination of a few high profile “accidents” along the way, coupled with those in the religious community who claim that body farmers are playing God, and asking “where does our soul reside?” has given it thousands of top media headlines around the world.

Every person on the planet has a different opinion about this moral dilemma, or whether its safe or dangerous, or whether we should just get better at repairing our existing bodies.
As medical advances continue, and we devise an entirely new range of health-enhancing options, I propose we set a new standard, raising the bar to the highest possible level. I propose we put an end to human death.”

Fey’s article is interesting because he discusses many issues that would arise if we ended death. Do we preserve our bodies, grow a new one, or upload our minds into a computer?
What do we do with criminals? Do we execute them instead of letting them live forever? Do we destroy their memories so they are no longer a danger to society?

In To Live Forever, Jack Vance posits a future society in which immortality is the ultimate reward. Five categories have been created for citizens, for achievements in each category you get extra years of life. The ultimate currency in is not money, but slope, which measures your contributions to society. Those who have made the highest contributions, the fortunate few, achieve Amaranth, true immortality. In Vance’s world, a meritocracy is created, with the most successful gaining immortality, while the majority of the population eventually dies.
Who pays for immortality? Vance postulates a free market economy based on eternal life; you earn slope, and that translates into a longer life. Otherwise, Malthusian overpopulation would cause mass starvation. I don’t think that is a practical solution: even if the system was fair, my guess is that the “undeserving,” who don’t obtain enough slope, would eventually rise up against the immortals. Why let the most accomplished live forever while everyone else dies?
Fey’s article, unlike Vance’s novel, doesn’t address the economic and environmental problems with eternal life. If people could live forever, could we grow enough food? Wouldn’t we overrun and destroy the planet in a generation or two?

There are also psychological problems with eternal life. Could we remain productive if we lived 500 years? How about 1,000 years? Immortality has a rich tradition in literature and mythology: from the myth of Tithonus, who asked the gods for immortality, but forgot to ask for eternal youth, and was cursed to live forever as a shriveled husk, or the Wandering Jew, doomed to transverse the Earth for centuries in misery. Would immortality lead to stagnation, boredom, and an end to innovation? Is it necessary to replace other generations with newer generations for humanity to continue being innovative?

Commentators on my previous post on Transcendental Man pointed out that true immortality is impossible. Eventually the universe will end. That point is certainly true, although if we achieve the sort of god-like transcendence envisioned by Kurzweil and other advocates of the singularity, then we might be able to escape into an alternate universe or survive as the universe makes a transition to another big bang. However, if we die in several billion years that’s certainly a long enough lifetime, so that’s not much of a concern.

A more serious issue is identity. If my memories and consciousness are uploaded into a computer or another body, is that still me? Does our identity reside in our brains and bodies, or in our memories and personality? I tend to think my identity resides in my brain, so if you copied my memories, thoughts, and consciousness, and then placed them in a computer that would just be a facsimile of my identity. The only way for me to have long life or near immortality would be if we could keep repairing my current body.

Another serious concern is resources. If we kept everyone’s body alive forever, then the world would quickly run out of resources. Unless we had functioning nanotechnology, or could ship people to other planets, we could end up with a lot of hungry immortals living in the dark.